Less a reimagining of “Peter Pan” than an elaborate cut-and-paste job, the only-fleetingly-spectacular “Neverland” weds J.M. Barrie’s classic to elements from “Avatar” and “Star Wars,” with dashes of “Oliver Twist” for good measure. The four-hour Syfy miniseries represents the latest adaptation of a beloved public-domain property distributed by RHI Entertainment, relying on international support to finance an opulent fantasy featuring accomplished actors in smallish roles. To say it is less dreadful than recent similarly themed co-productions unleashed under the Halmis’ shingle is accurate, but also qualifies as damnation with faint sprinkles of fairy dust.
Written and directed by Nick Willing (who also did “Alice” and “Tin Man” for the Halmis and Syfy), the pic recasts Neverland as a heavily wooded planet whose local fauna includes giant alligators and tiny tree sprites, one of which is Tinkerbell (voiced by Keira Knightley).
People are brought to this strange land via a glowing orb, and then trapped there, without aging, through all eternity. The disjointed occupants include pirates headed by a female captain, Elizabeth Bonny (“Pushing Daisies'” Anna Friel, terribly ill used); a band of ragamuffins led by Peter (Charlie Rowe); and a Native-American tribe, whose ranks include the princess Tiger Lilly (Q’Orianka Kilcher).
Finally, there’s Jimmy Hook (“Anonymous'” Rhys Ifans), an early 20th century London criminal whose minions include a group of youthful pickpockets, headed by the dashing and resourceful Peter. Loyal to Jimmy, Peter also passes through the glowing portal, but begins to doubt their connection as Jimmy takes up with the pirates and Bonny, who harbors plans of using the orb to achieve unparalleled power.
As constructed, it amounts to a Peter Pan prequel lacquered up with a revisionist space-age paint job. As for the cast, Ifans’ ruthless, gimlet-eyed Jimmy is the clear highlight, while the cameos include a drive-by Charles Dance and Bob Hoskins as Smee, reprising the role he played in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook.”
Familiarity with Peter Pan actually works against the mini as much as for it, since many of the little twists are so telegraphed. Nor does it help the visual effects are uneven, with flight scenes that only occasionally get off the ground, and assorted CGI beasties, the best being a giant spider.
The action, similarly, is loud and chaotic but not particularly stirring, including an interminable battle sequence near the end.
There’s no mystery surrounding why networks are drawn to these Halmi productions — delivering, as they do, big promotable titles at a discounted price, while producing enough arresting shots to yield good-looking promos. It’s about as low-risk as original programming gets, and it’s worked in the past.
Even so, “Neverland” in particular comes with a considerable dose of irony. Because while one of the fantastic aspects of the Peter Pan mythos is the promise of eternal youth, by the time it was finally over, I felt as if I’d aged about 10 years watching it.